Some 250 residents who live here in Prospect Towers may be breathing easier - and have some work to do - after an eight-day period wherein the local power company almost cut electricity to the 192 apartment units April 30.
About 80 men, women and children in Prospect Towers' lobby applauded 7:45 p.m. May 10 when it was announced that board member Franco Musano announced was putting up $145,000 towards the outstanding Public Service Electric and Gas bill.
Musano stood off to one side of 10 property and city officials who briefed the residents on how the Prospect Towers Owners Association will pay off the $200,000 outstanding electricity bill. The officials also fielded questions from the condominium owners and renters about what steps the association will take to keep 275 Prospect St. from the danger of being cut off - and effectively evicted - again.
"The first thing the $145,000 will do is it'll get Public Service off our backs," said Musano during the one hour meeting. "You have power and a roof over your head. We're going to get an aggressive attorney to help us with our arrears. We're not going into bankruptcy but we've bought some time."
Musano, fellow property board member Courtney Thomas and First Ward Councilwoman Andrea McPhatter were among those hailed for being heroes of the last eight days. The mostly optimistic applause was in sharp contrast from the furrowed brows of the initial 7:45 p.m. April 30 lobby meeting - and of the arrival of city and utility officials 9 a.m. that day.
East Orange officials' posting of notices on the lobby's front windows at about 9:30 a.m. April 30 was the first sign that something was amiss at Prospect Towers. The notices, from the city's division of property management and office of emergency management, announced that negotiations between the property owners and PSE&G had broken down.
"Local Talk" - in talking with Thomas, McPhatter, lawyer Kevin Taylor and Mayor Robert Bowser - understands that the owners association and the utility had been negotiating in the last week before the cutoff notice was supposedly posted. One resident, at the May 10 meeting, said that utility's cutoff notices were posted in the lobby in late April but "someone took them down and some of us had no notice."
"Public Service said we owed them $200,000," said Taylor at the April 30 meeting. "We went to their offices (in Newark) and offered them $97,000 that we put together and a payment plan for the balance. They said that was unacceptable and wanted at least $150,000."
The city's notices stated that residents had until 6 p.m. May 1 to make alternative living arrangements. PSE&G would keep the power on until 9 a.m. May 2 - at which time city police officers and firefighters would start a 90-minute evacuation of the 15-story building.
Police officers were erecting barriers on Prospect Street between Springdale Avenue and Hamilton Street at 9:30 a.m. Buses on NJTransit No. 94 and DeCamp's No. 88 routes were detoured.
Prospect Towers, built in the 1950s, stands along a ridge among several 20th Century condominium, garden apartment and apartment towers. It overlooks the former Upsala College - now East Orange Campus High School and Upsala Heights homes - across the street.
Manta.com lists Prospect Towers as having studio and one- to three- bedroom apartments available and a working staff of 10 to 19 people. Manta lists the annual sales volume at between $1 and $2.5 million.
Prospect Towers houses both rental apartments and condominium units. There is a condominium owners’ association board of 11 officers overseeing property management. There is a Taylor Management - no known relation to attorney Taylor - that supplies a doorman and does the maintenance.
"With a building so large holding so many residents, the city had to be involved," said Bowser at the May 10 meeting. "I know of five buildings in a similar situation. I was threatening Public Service workers with arrest if they tried cutting the power that day."
Taylor said April 30 negotiations continued until 4:15 p.m. when he said that property board members decided to file for Chapter XI bankruptcy to buy time. They called McPhatter, who in turn, called New Jersey Superior Court-Newark.
"After 4 p.m. on a Friday, the court doesn't want to hear more cases," said McPhatter. "I got a court clerk on the phone, who kept the court open and a judge waiting for us."
McPhatter said that the judge issued a week's stay in the cut off and evacuation. She, at the May 9 City Council meeting, thanked all city employees and officers involved.
That stay included a bankruptcy filing - which Thomas said, on May 10, will be revoked.
"The bankruptcy bought us time," said Thomas. "After talking among ourselves and with the attorney who represented us at the time, it was decided that bankruptcy wasn't the best avenue to take - there were too many variables."
The current board will bring in a building assessor to determine Prospect Towers' value. That process would take 30 to 60 days.
Other next steps for Prospect Towers' leaders include:
- Setting up an escrow account for the outstanding utility bill. The new attorney and one board member will have signatory access to the fund.
- Setting up a repayment plan to Musano. Owners and renters may be paying additional monthly maintenance fees or dedicated rent charges - $1,200 to $1,500 a month - back to him.
- Restructuring the property owners board. The 11 officers - including a president, a treasurer and at least one renters' representative - are to be elected and meet in an open manner. "I've heard of one board member claiming he had a lifetime position," said Thomas. "I've found no evidence of this so it's hearsay - and it's absurd."
- Conduct an internal investigation of finances and operations. "Public Service once said that we owed $300,000," said one resident. "The lack of communication has been going on for years."